Legendary Stimela founder and internationally renowned singer and guitarist Ray Phiri died on 12 July 2017, following a battle with lung cancer. The self-taught musician famously collaborated on Paul Simon’s Graceland album. He was 70 years old.
Chikapa Enock “Raymond” Phiri was born in rural Mpumalanga in 1947, the son of South African musician “Just Now” Phiri. His mother was Malawian. Phiri took to music at a young age, teaching himself the guitar while watching his father perform.
He formed the Afro-pop group The Cannibals in the 1970s but it had little national success. After the band broke up, he founded the more focused Stimela in 1980. The band’s blend of traditional African music with pop sensibility and jazz proficiency was a success, thanks to Phiri’s dexterous role as both chief songwriter and band leader.
Stimela released a number of chart-topping and critically acclaimed albums over the next 30 years, including the classic Look, Listen and Decide in 1986 and 1996’s Out of the Ashes, a passionate and articulate musical response to life in the new democratic South Africa.
After meeting American pop singer Paul Simon in the 1980s, Phiri was invited to contribute to the classic Simon album Graceland, which blended the American’s universal pop song writing with the sounds of African mbaqanga and isicathamiya music. Phiri played guitar on five tracks, including the global hit You Can Call Me Al. Graceland sold 16 million albums and won the 1987 Grammy for Album of the Year.
— Ranga.?? (@RangaMberi) July 12, 2017
Phiri toured with Simon for the rest of the decade as well as played guitar on Simon’s follow-up album, The Rhythm of the Saints.
During the 1990s, Phiri continued his career with Stimela, as well as recorded solo albums and collaborated with other South African and international artists, including Miriam Makeba and UK jazz musician Freddy Gardner.
Even though he performed at some of the world’s most prestigious concert venues, including New York’s Madison Square Gardens and the Royal Albert Hall in London, Phiri was a pervasive feature on local stages, both large and intimate, including at Oppikoppi and the National Arts Festival, Johannesburg’s legendary Bassline venue and regular performances in his home province. His live performance prowess with Simon was described by Rolling Stone magazine as “emotive and gifted”.
While authentic and stable in his personal life, Phiri suffered a number of life-altering tragedies, including road accidents in 1987 and 2003, in which his long-time manager and his wife, Daphney, respectively, died. He never remarried.
In a media statement released in July 2017, Phiri announced he had terminal lung cancer and asked for privacy for his family in dealing with the closing stages of the disease. He died in Nelspruit on the morning of Wednesday, 12 July 2017.
Phiri is survived by his eight children.
South African musicians and fans responded to Phiri’s death on social media, offering heartfelt remembrances of his music and his passionate personality.
Fellow musician Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse remembers fondly his years touring and playing with Phiri, telling SABC News: “…Ray was a very active, energetic kind of person… I never thought that the cancer had gone so far that it could take his life. I will forever cherish all the times that I have had with him.”
— Year of OR Tambo (@MYANC) July 12, 2017
— Ulrich J van Vuuren (@UlrichJvV) July 12, 2017
— Lesego Semenya (@LesDaChef) July 12, 2017
Rre Ray Phiri also joined the Graceland tour with Paul Simon to mobilise countries to support the struggle for our liberation. pic.twitter.com/Wq7muuIopX
— Min. Nathi Mthethwa (@NathiMthethwaSA) July 12, 2017
To celebrate the life and art of Ray Phiri, here are three of his greatest songs, as a member of Stimela, as a solo artist and as a collaborator with Paul Simon:
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